Why are British factories turning away business?

We look at why UK manufacturers might be saying ‘no’ to potential orders

British bag factory
British bag factory

This week I had an email from a lady who was having trouble getting her new handbag range made in the UK. She had approached a small manufacturing unit and asked them to make some samples for her and had been told by the owner that she would be better off getting her products made in China. I was sorry to hear that her first attempt to support British manufacturing had not met with a positive outcome, but I was not surprised that she had come across this reaction.

Firstly, the type of bag that she was looking to make was quite a complex one that would involve many processes and prove labour intensive to make, and secondly she wanted to make the bags from synthetic leather, which generally commands a lower retail price than its real leather counterpart. By making this type of bag in the UK the cost of labour makes up a much larger percentage of the overall cost of the bag, making the product vastly more expensive than producing it in the Far East, where labour costs are much lower.

The trick is, if you are going to use a British factory to manufacture your goods you need to play to their strengths, a factor  that was discussed by Adam Atkinson of leathergoods brand Cherchbi when we interviewed him recently. Operating at the quality, top-end of the market is something that many British manufacturers across all sectors now do in order to set them apart from overseas competition. Hence, most UK bag factories now specialise in high-end leather production to differentiate themselves.


But why would a British factory turn a customer away just because she could get the product made cheaper overseas? Surely they are all crying out for work?
The reality is it’s far from that simple. Firstly, British factories are now being approached by designers and retailers all the time to sample products for them. All of them start out with the best intentions of wanting to support local manufacturing, only to find that the resulting cost prices are much higher than they could ever have anticipated. Rather than listening to advice and amending the products that they make to play to the suppliers strengths, they write off British factories as too expensive and take their production offshore, leaving the factory owner out of pocket.

Sampling is a very expensive process for a factory, using up time and labour that could more productively be used elsewhere, and too many of them have had their fingers burnt in the past by making loads of samples that never go into production. Nowadays, if they get the slightest indication that the sampling will not lead to a confirmed order then they will turn down the business. I know of factories that are charging four figure sums up front to produce samples in order to work out if designers are genuinely committed to them.


Another issue that British factories now have is finding enough skilled workers to cope with the increase in demand for British manufacturing. Many that were laid off during the mass exodus to China a few years ago have either taken up other work or retired, and training up new staff takes time and is costly. They are also nervous of taking on additional labour costs, unsure of what the future may hold.

At the moment there just aren’t enough British factories compared to the amount of designers and retailers that want to use them, so manufacturers can pick and choose who they want to work with. It is a myth that British factories are all sitting there waiting for business these days – so if you are thinking of getting your products made in Britain, do your research first and make sure that your chosen manufacturer knows you are committed.

If you are a designer looking for a British factory to work with then visit our Find a Factory page.

You may also want to read an earlier article on How to Sample with a British Clothing Manufacturer